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Navigate your way to successful change

In last week’s blog I looked at how important it is for change leaders to be authentic and to form deeper connections with the people they interact with.

Today my focus turns to the importance of being aware of, and alert to, the wider operating context the organisation sits within (such as market conditions, political situations, changing customer behaviours and social issues), and how to facilitate change by helping others to understand the nature of emerging new challenges and opportunities, as well as how they can be addressed.

Regardless of size, longevity or brand profile of an organisation, its leaders must have the ability to confidently navigate through what is—to use a US military college invented term—a Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous (VUCA) world.

Organisational survival in today’s digital world requires a fundamental shift in leadership. Rather than being a tower of certainty, stability and ‘right answers,’ today’s leaders need to navigate an ever-changing landscape competently, while maintaining forward momentum, focus on the goal, and flexibility in their approach. They need to change to suit the situation, not try to change the situation to suit them.

So, how do leaders stay aware of the wider operating context, whilst at the same time effortlessly navigating their way through all the challenges it presents?

This table summarises the responses needed by leaders to support others through changing times. The emphasis is not on trying to ‘settle’ or ‘control’ the context, rather it’s about having the skills and confidence to work with it:

Here are some practical tips and suggestions on how you can lead change in a VUCA world:

Keep your eyes on the horizon

Leading change is a little like being a racing car driver: if you keep your eyes fixated on the bumper of the car in front of you, then you’re not going to be fully aware of your surroundings. You’re also making the grave assumption that the person in front of you is paying attention (which we know is not always the case). And you’re probably not driving to your optimal capability and safety either.

However, if you keep your eyes on the horizon at all times, you’ll see likely hazards and problems in advance, and be able to take action before it’s too late. This is known as ‘high-eyes’ in professional car racing. Great leaders need to maintain high-eyes at all times.  Keep your organisational vision in sight and don’t get stuck staring at the bumper in front of you.

Encourage all your employees to be the eyes and ears of the organisation. Engage in conversations about the future often and with positive energy.

Avoid making promises you can’t keep

The future isn’t certain (it never has been), and even with the most-defined vision, programs, plans and resources in place, disruption is possible and likely. I’m sure many people reading this have found themselves in situations where they had felt secure and supported, only to be taken by surprise. The consequences of such surprises can be devastating and far-reaching.

Creating a false sense of security for employees regarding the context they are working in is an unhealthy direction to take as a change leader. Truthful, adult-to-adult, conversations are healthier and far more likely to lead to commitment to a successful organisational future for all.

Great change leaders create a shared understanding of challenges. They create an environment where people feel safe to open up about their thoughts for the future of the organisation without fear of being judged or patronised for their views.

Keep asking this question all the time: what business are we in? 

Sometimes the complexity and interdependencies of issues and challenges that need to be overcome in an organisation can be overwhelming. To the point that the business you think you’re in today could need to change course tomorrow. It’s no surprise that there has been a surge in meditation and mindfulness to support personal effectiveness at work.

It is hard to provide clarity about the future without certainty, but it’s not impossible. Change leaders provide clarity of purpose rather than clarity over a likely future outcome. The organisation’s vision needs to connect – it needs to have a reason and relevance in an ever-changing world not just be a static statement about a future destination that may or may not exist.

For example, if your organisational vision has words in it like ‘to be the world’s largest supplier of widgets’—what happens if the world doesn’t want or need widgets anymore?  It’s time to let go of trying to ‘own’ a material goal or a market sector, and replace it with a vision that allows for more freedom and flexibility in how you get there.

Take a look at your current vision statement and ask:

  • What business are we in?
  • Why would achieving that vision be a good thing for us to be contributing in the future?
  • Are we limiting our potential by trying to get to there and not somewhere else?

Replace limiting and uninspiring words with ones that have meaning in your unique context. Move away from static statements such as: ‘To be the world’s largest widget supplier’ and instead move toward purpose statements like: ‘a world in which five million people benefit from our widgets every day.’

Agile as a way of being not doing

The simple word ‘agile’ is used a lot in organisations today. It’s been trademarked, copyrighted, and turned into methodologies that even have a separate definition in the Oxford Dictionary. But due to our exposure to all the various versions and experiences of ‘agile,’ we have formed bias connections (good or bad) with the term.

So for clarity, let’s use the primary Oxford Dictionary definitions:

1.The ability to move quickly and easily

2.The ability to think and understand quickly 

Have you ever delayed a decision before? We’ve all done it. And we can all give ourselves great reasons for why it was important and thought we were doing the right thing. After all, you can’t be too careful when it comes to making decisions that affect your organisation’s future (or maybe your own future? Think about that for a moment). The trouble is, there is actually a fine line between being prudent about making a decision and the point at which the decision becomes irrelevant.

Being agile is essential to responding to challenges as they arise. The rate of change is so high, that if you remain with ambiguity for too long, you will find yourself with ten decisions to make instead of one.

Being agile is a skill that can be developed; but it comes with the price of letting go of control (but not the discipline) and accepting that failure is an essential part of the change journey.

In next week’s blog, and what will be the last in this series, we’ll look at ways in which we can better embrace failure as part of becoming a great leader of change.

5 Gemba Principles

A tool for staying connected to your context Decisions regarding changes you make in your organisation must be made in the context of where the

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Comprehend - the then and now

We riff, play with, and imagine what’s possible for the organisation. We seek to understand its intent, purpose, ambition and future aspirations – and reasons for wanting or needing to change.

We then ground this future into its current context, the reality of the ‘gestalt” – what is the lived experience of the organisation? 

What is its current reality/context? What is the whole that is ‘presenced’? We ask questions, observe, do small projects, research, learn boundaries and listen to stories. We see the organisation, the work it does and the essence of its culture at play.

Connect - the now and then

We represent a comprehensive menu of opportunities for progression towards whatever it is the organisation is seeking to achieve – without judgement, nor favour.

The pathways to improvement are many and varied, not linear. Many can be taken at once, and within the limits of resources available at the time.

We seek to leave the organisation ‘response-able’. With the knowledge, methods and capabilities needed to continue to evolve and change its path creatively and courageously as needed and in step with its ever-changing context.

Create - the then and now

We riff, play with, and imagine what’s possible for the organisation. We seek to understand its intent, purpose, ambition and future aspirations – and reasons for wanting or needing to change.

We then ground this future into its current context, the reality of the ‘gestalt” – what is the lived experience of the organisation? 

What is its current reality/context? What is the whole that is ‘presenced’? We ask questions, observe, do small projects, research, learn boundaries and listen to stories. We see the organisation, the work it does and the essence of its culture at play.

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